Described by Milos Forman as “Disney + Bunuel,” stop-motion animator Jan Švankmajer is one of the few artists to truly translate the spirit of early-20th century surrealism for the present. Folks like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam cite Švankmajer’s late-‘80s and early-‘90s feature films like Alice and Faust as classics in the art form.
But most of all, Burton and Gilliam point to Švankmajer’s early short films from the ‘60s through the early ‘80s. One of these, the 10-minute Kostnice from 1970—known as Ossuary—isn’t stop-motion at all. Instead, it’s a beautifully stylized study of the decoratively laid-out bones of 70,000 people in the Cemetery Church in suburban Sedlec in the Czech Republic.
Shot during the dire couple of years after the Prague Spring liberation of 1968 collapsed under an invasion by Warsaw Pact troops, Svankmajer made Ossuary a grim reminder of human fallibility.
As Jan Uhde wrote in his piece on the film for KinoEye:
Film-makers, particularly those of the “Czech New Wave,” were among the most severely persecuted. The fact that a non-conformist like Švankmajer was allowed to shoot in this atmosphere at all was in part due to the fact that he was working in the relatively obscure and inexpensive domain of short film production; this may have saved him from the crackdown that struck his more exposed colleagues in the feature film studios during the 1970s.
Moreover, Švankmajer’s remarkable tenacity and creative thinking enabled him to sometimes outwit the regime’s ideological watchdogs[…] The film was commissioned as a “cultural documentary,” a form popular with the authorities and considered relatively safe politically. But the subject Švankmajer chose must have been a surprise for the apparatchiks: on the one hand, the Sedlec Ossuary was a first-rate historical site which, at first glance, suited the official didactic demand. On the other hand, there was the uncomfortable subject of decay and death as well as religion, reflecting a subtle yet defiant opposition to the loud secular optimism of the communist officialdom.